A Conversation With HUMANITAS Board of Directors' Ed Zwick
by Matt Pacult Photo by Arnold Wells HUMANITAS prize winner and current Board of Directors member Edward Zwick’s interview with Janet Sumner was one of the featured events of the AFF. Within the first few minutes, Sumner rattled off a bullet point history of the Emmys, Peabodys, WGA, DGA, and AFI awards he had accumulated for his television and film work. At one point, when she mentioned the term "genius," he covered his face and shook his head. Zwick subsequently spent much of the interview praising his collaborators.
His first official film set job was as a “half-assed” production assistant on the Woody Allen film, Love and Death. On watching Woody Allen work on set, he said, “He really didn’t know much about film. He was a writer. And he was able to surround himself with extraordinarily talented people who were there to help him realize that vision.”
Zwick discussed his graduate school education at the American Film Institute. He thrived with AFI’s order of operations. “Rather than learning in order to do, you do in order to learn. From the very first day, you start shooting,” he said. The critiquing process could be brutal. Filmmakers watched in silence as their peers tore into each other’s films. He emerged having learned to accept responsibility for every decision on screen and having found a friend in Marshall Herskovitz, who would go on to be a fellow member of the Board of Directors at HUMANITAS. “We met, literally, the very first day and began to have each other’s back.”
The learning process didn’t end at AFI. “(Herskovitz) became my teacher as well as my friend. And I think I became the same for him…those people that you met at the beginning of your career, actually become the more important teachers.” Many of the lessons he learned there—or failed to learn—didn’t kick in until he had made “one mortifying mistake after another.” He added, “I don’t think I really found anything resembling my own voice until I was 30. I’m talking six or seven years of really bad work.” Upon landing a producer role at the TV show Family, the first thing he did was hire Herskovitz and other friends.
Referring to his partnership with Herskovitz, Sumner asked, “What’s your secret?” Indeed, the commercial, artistic, and long-lasting success of their partnership and The Bedford Falls Production Company is colossal. Helping each other out at AFI somehow paved the way to projects such as Love & Other Drugs, Defiance, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Legends of the Fall, thirtysomething, and other critical achievements dating back to 1983’s lauded TV movie, Special Bulletin.
“We’re best friends first,” he said. “At the earliest stages of our relationship he had strengths I lacked, and I had strengths he lacked.” Over time, they’ve grown closer in writing style. They honed the skill where one person articulates the kernel of an idea, and the other one can pick up something important in that kernel. “Over time, it’s not your idea or his idea, it’s a third idea.” They also spare each other the “difficult and dangerous” solitariness of being a writer dealing with a blank page. Admittedly, digressions play a part. There is relief in talking about sports or family.
Regarding the best way to write, he said, “Leave out the parts that people want to go to bathroom or get popcorn during. I think that movies finally flow from an oral tradition. I think one of the best ways to figure out what you’re doing is to tell the story out loud.” He added, “Eventually, if you do it enough, you’ll come to understand what interests you most. And I would write that part more than another part.”
He cited other wonderful collaborations. Matt Damon, an eventual HUMANITAS winner, acted in 1996’s Courage Under Fire. Damon poured himself into the role. Zwick recalled how they filmed a portion of a scene before breaking for lunch. The film’s lead, Denzel Washington, acted opposite of Damon and realized he had just been “blown out of the water” on camera. “Who’s that kid?” Washington asked. After lunch, Washington raised his game.
He spoke highly of his crews. “I have access to really smart, really talented people who are willing to join me on these collaborations—whether that’s historians or armorers or fight coordinators or costumers.” Zwick is sensitive to how much quality an individual can add to a project. Starting out, he said, “It became very clear to me that the Key Grip had made 300 movies before I had even made one.”
Zwick’s answers allowed the audience to see what relationships had not been part of his arsenal. The Department of Defense refused to cooperate with the filming of Courage Under Fire. He admitted that many films that have official military advisors tend to feel like commercials for the military.
On the HUMANITAS writing prize, he spoke fondly of the prize’s founder, Father Bud Kaiser. “He was a Catholic Priest who said, in this very practical way, ‘If we could figure out a way to give money to writers, it might give them more time to write better things.’” He continued, “When you try to write something that has a set of values that are more complex or earnest in any way, you tend to be held to a higher standard. It has to be entertaining and worthy. That’s doubly hard. Those things are harder to sell, harder to get made. It’s actually harder to have that career. He thought those people should be rewarded with an incentive.”
There were other notable comments including questions about his 10 Filmmaking Tips list published by IndieWire. Be sure to check out Austin Film Festival’s show On Story in the coming months for a more in-depth look at this interview.